BBC News | Friday, 25 June 2010 | 13:15 GMT
The US Congress has all but finalised the biggest reform of US financial regulation since the Great Depression. President Obama said the reforms would "hold Wall Street to account". Legislators stayed up all of Thursday night for 19 hours of non-stop negotiations to reconcile separate versions of the bill that had been passed by the two houses of Congress. Agreement was reached to impose strict limits on banks’ ability to take risky speculative bets on markets. Speaking before the start of the G8 and G20 summits in Canada, President Barack Obama said he was "gratified" by the progress made by Congress. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said the bill that had emerged was "strong" and described it as "the most sweeping set of financial reforms since those that followed the Great Depression".
The debate only ended at 0540 Washington time (0940 GMT), with compromises reached on all major points. The bill represents a second major legislative victory this year for President Barack Obama – following healthcare reform – and rode a popular backlash among American voters against Wall Street. "We worry about big money," said Democrat Barney Frank, who headed the negotiations. "I worry about big money having a corrupting influence, but it is reassuring to know that when public opinion gets engaged, it will win."
The bill introduces the so-called Volcker rule – named after the former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, who proposed it. The rule is intended to ban banks from risky entanglements in the financial markets. US banks will be barred from taking big trading bets on markets. They will also be limited to investing a maximum of 3% of their capital in speculative businesses such as hedge funds or private equity funds. The bill will also set up a powerful consumer financial protection bureau, with powers to clamp down on abusive practices by credit card companies and mortgage lenders. It now has to be passed by both the Senate and the House. When asked whether this would
happen, President Obama said, "You bet".
Mr Obama said the final bill "represents 90% of what I proposed when I took up this fight". But concessions had to be offered in order to win over Republican backing for the deal. The US Congress is dominated by President Obama’s Democratic Party, which holds majorities in both houses. However, following the death of Edward Kennedy last year, Republicans won his Massachusetts seat in the Senate, giving them a crucial blocking minority there. Indeed, the 3% permitted investment in speculative businesses was a dilution to the Volcker Rule demanded by the new Massachusetts senator, Scott Brown. Agreement was also reached on higher capital requirements for banks. This means banks will either need to do less risky lending, or they will have to raise more money from shareholders to hold in reserve against loan losses, or both. However, congressmen conceded a five-year transition period for banks to meet the new capital rules, and they exempted smaller banks – with less than $15bn in assets – from the rules altogether.
Another major sticking point was a Senate proposal to ban banks from dealing in so-called swaps. Swaps are a type of derivative – financial contracts once described by investor Warren Buffett as "financial weapons of mass destruction". Under the Senate bill, banks would have been forced to spin this business off into separate affiliated companies, in order to protect them from losses. But negotiators agreed to water down the Senate bill, exempting the biggest swaps markets – on interest rates and currency exchange rates – from the ban. But banks will still be banned from dealing in credit default swaps unless they do so through the safety of a financial exchange. This measure will severely curtail one of the most profitable activities of the big international banks when they do business in the US.